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Epic to Oscar - Doctor Zhivago

Sunday marked the 83rd presentation of Academy Awards to honor those whose lives are dedicated to the film industry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the prestigious Oscar to notable people in a variety of categories. This year’s leading film, The King’s Speech, captured three Oscars. Many films are based on a novel and adapted to a screenplay. Among the monumental works that gave new light to the word epic is Doctor Zhivago, written by Russian author Boris Pasternak.

In 1965, director David Lean took on this arduous task of converting characters from the pages of a book and adapting them to the big screen—without, ironically—changing too much about the characters. The real work was in the writing, adapting the novel to a screenplay, which was done by Robert Bolt. Pasternak’s novel intermingled drama and romance using a backdrop of war in Russia in the early twentieth century.

The audience (or reader) follows the events in the life of Yuri Zhivago, therefore understanding the basics of Russian politics and history are important in capturing the essence of the characters and what motivated them to make the choices they did during course of their lives. Yuri Zhivago, played by Omar Sharif, is part of Russian society bourgeoisie. The story shows the unfolding political chaos brought on by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War. The narrative reveals how the characters are psychologically impacted due to social and political change and complicated interpersonal relationships. Yuri is married to Tonya (played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin), yet falls in love with Larissa—or Lara—(played by Julie Christie) who is already engaged to Pasha, a participant in the Bolshevik protest. Victor Komarovsky, a seedy character who was friend and business partner to Yuri’s father (played by Rod Steiger) has a hold over Lara.

The plot remains close to the novel, however, much of the politics and history had to be cut in the original adaptation to a screenplay. Slight variances are found when comparing the novel to the film, such as: when Yuri stops practicing medicine, or the fact that he has another mistress named Marina, to whom he fathers two daughters. Also, at the end of the novel, it is the Swiss nurse that Yuri sees on the street prior to his heart attack, yet in the film Yuri sees Lara. Finally, the audience isn’t exposed to the mental decline that Yuri suffers, which of course, is difficult to adapt to film. Boris Pasternak incorporated an element of intrigue into his novel because, not only does he contribute a work of prose, but poetry that gives meaning to the internal struggles that Yuri endured. Alternatively, the poems stand alone and are open to a completely different and personal interpretation by the reader.

Beyond minute differences from book to screen, the film Doctor Zhivago earned ten nominations at the 38th Academy Awards, and won five Oscars from the ten nominations. Among the five winning categories were: Art Direction, Costume Design, Music Score, Cinematography, and Adapted Screenplay. The film was distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, produced by Carlo Ponti, and at the time, grossed around $112 million dollars.

But what other film could beat this epic drama? The other leading contender at the 38th Academy Awards broadcasted by ABC network in 1966 and hosted by Bob Hope was The Sound of Music. The film, distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, won an award for Best Picture, among a few others. Julie Christie, the actress who played Lara, did walk away with the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award, but for her role in Darling.

Another interesting fact is that the producer of the Academy Awards held in 1966 was Joe Pasternak. That’s correct, the same name as the Russian author Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. The two men were indeed, related. Joe Pasternak was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and later immigrated to America. His career as a film producer spanned forty years, which earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died just short of his ninetieth birthday in 1991.

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